This story first published online at NC Policy Watch.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Michael Regan as the new EPA administrator Wednesday evening by a vote of 66-34.
Regan, the outgoing Secretary of the Environment in North Carolina, is the first Black man to serve in the EPA’s top leadership role.
“It’s a profound responsibility,” Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said, a few hours before the vote. “He believes we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the planet.”
President Joe Biden nominated Regan to be administrator in December. Last month, Regan, who served under a Democratic governor in North Carolina, received the support of the state’s two conservative Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.
Nonetheless, Regan faced tough questioning from members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, many of whom seemed to view him as a proxy for more controversial executive appointments, such as climate czar Gina McCarthy, whose positions didn’t require congressional input.
That attitude had not shifted yet Wednesday, at least among some Republican senators.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, opposed Regan’s nomination over concerns that McCarthy and EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe, both veterans of the Obama administration, would actually be in charge. “I can’t support Michael Regan when Gina McCarthy is leading the orchestra.”
It was during the Obama administration that the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rules were proposed, although neither was fully implemented because of legal headwinds. Coal-producing states like West Virginia, Capito said, were “devastated” by Obama-era environmental policies.
“I really liked meeting and getting to know Michael Regan,” Capito said. “He’s a good public servant and an honest man. But this vote is about someone who would execute President Biden’s agenda. … And I can’t support that agenda.”
Regan will inherit an EPA whose ranks under the Trump administration were hollowed out by budget cuts and whose morale was wounded by the political undermining of scientific integrity.
In his support of Regan’s nomination, Carper lauded the North Carolina native’s commitment to tackling climate change — an existential threat to the planet. “Climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Carper said.
Because of Regan’s experience in North Carolina contending with perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, in several drinking water supplies, environmental advocates hope the EPA will regulate the compounds, which are widespread in the drinking water supply.
Regan also received the support of dozens of major national agricultural organizations, generally known for their conservative politics.
At his committee hearing, Regan said “regulation is not the sole answer. I’ll be partnering with agriculture, energy and defense interests about how to solve [environmental] problems.”
Regan earned a reputation in North Carolina for his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans, although the GOP majority often reciprocated by cutting his agency’s budget and passing laws that defanged its authority.
In the Biden administration, Regan could have more opportunities to bridge the political divide.
“Michael Regan can bring people to gather and bridge the political divide,” Carper said. “He made clear he will be an EPA administrator for red states and blue states. Leaders unite, not divide. They are humble, not haughty. Leaders are purveyors of hope. Michael Regan is that kind of leader.”
Even Capito, by the end of her remarks, had accepted that Regan would likely be confirmed.
“I hope he makes good on his promises about climate change,” she said. “I hope Michael Regan can cut McCarthy out of power and let her know who is calling the shots. And that he embraces President Biden’s theme of unity.”
North Carolina environmental advocates lauded Regan’s confirmation. Derb Carter, director of the North Carolina offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center, released a statement:
“Just as we worked with the state agency under Regan’s leadership to secure cleanups of coal ash and PFAS pollution in North Carolina, we look forward to tackling the serious problems facing our communities across our nation with a rejuvenated EPA under his leadership.
“Under Regan’s leadership, we hope EPA will take swift, strong action to protect America’s families from toxic chemical pollution like PFAS in our drinking water sources; restore protections to wetlands, streams and lakes that the Trump administration removed; and extend to other communities in the nation the protections against coal ash pollution that are now in place in North Carolina.
Dan Crawford, director of Governmental Relations for the NC League of Conservation Voters, also issued a statement:
“Michael Regan knows first-hand how pollution harms our health and quality of life. We’re excited to watch him do for the EPA what he did for North Carolina: put people and policy over politics, and work with scientists, stakeholders, lawmakers of both parties, and above all, the most impacted communities, to protect all Americans from polluters and climate change.”